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Students isolated at school: ‘I have never seen Aoife speak to another student’ 

The public needs to hear stories of student isolation at school and how urgently they need our attention

Aoife and Mark keep me awake at night in a way that league tables and inspection reports never will.

As teachers we warmly welcome recent media coverage of how isolating school can be for young people. The public needs to hear these stories and how urgently they require our attention. They may also be interested to hear what risks taking our focus away. Much of what is expected of us as teachers today is neither assisting Mark and Aoife in learning nor helping them in life.

I wonder if visiting inspectors notice Mark and Aoife – or are on the lookout for them. They definitely want to know that teachers of the same subject are teaching the same topic at the same time. Best practice certainly involves harmonising our assessments, but it is quite another thing to insist on an identical timeline for delivering content. When staff members are eager to work collectively for the benefit of pupils, their energy must be put to good use. That does not mean jumping through narrow, often senseless hoops to no apparent purpose.

Homework is another hoop. Here in Ireland, if a school is inspected, evidence of homework is expected. In a class of 28 (the average number I teach this year), each child may be responsible only for their own but I am responsible for feedback on them all. Copybooks are checked during inspections to ensure there is homework and that I have marked it. If I were to do that weekly, I would give feedback on 200 pieces of homework. I see duty of care as more important, and anyway the jury is still out on the positive value of homework. With the energy I preserve I notice how Mark and Aoife differ in their approaches to being isolated.


Schools have a duty of care, and the measure of duty placed on the teacher is “to take such care of his/her pupils as a careful parent would of his/her children”. This legal principle is known as “in loco parentis” (in the place of the parent). Could there be any greater responsibility in the workplace than being legally responsible for the welfare of other people’s children?

If teachers are charged with this, they need the resources to fulfil the obligation. Time and peace of mind are top of this list, the very things that dedicated teachers have very little of already. Teachers lead frantic lives and many of us lose sleep over our shortcomings, the things we know we are not doing and which will apparently matter when inspectors visit.

Aoife, in transition year, always spends her recreation time outside the same classroom. She has her earphones in and watches something on her phone while standing up. I don’t know why she doesn’t sit down, as it is blatantly obvious she is not going anywhere. I have no reason at all to think that she remains standing so that she can move more quickly and make a fast escape. Her bag stays on her back too. I have literally never seen her speak to another student – perhaps those who teach her have.

Aoife is physically imposing and yet she is so quiet that she seems small. When I greet her she does look at me, perhaps nods ever so slightly, but never answers. She is like a statue in her permanence in that exact spot whenever she is not in class.

Mark, in fifth year, has a completely different approach. For starters he greets me when we meet. He’s the classic grown man in an adolescent’s body and I know he will thrive in life one day. I often see him in conversation with certain male members of staff so there’s clearly a shared interest around sport or cars or something.

Mark always seems to be on the move; his strategy to mask that he is all alone is to make it look as though he is in a permanent hurry to get to wherever he has been delayed from for far too long already.

More time and peace of mind for teachers would afford them opportunities to notice these children, as many go unidentified, partly because they become adept at making themselves invisible

I have no idea where Aoife and Mark eat – those who are isolated in school seem to dislike being seen eating alone. This would be an admission that they have settled into their solitude. It is more acceptable to be standing waiting or walking quickly. And so eating in private, or perhaps not eating at school, is a feature of their lives. It helps them disappear from view.

Nor will Mark and Aoife easily join a sports team or lunchtime club. These are typically where the groups flock to, and all schools have the individuals who require something quieter, a more sensitive option. And yet this is something schools often don’t have.

With more time and peace of mind, school leaders and year heads would come up with a creative offering to invite the Marks and Aoifes into community. More time and peace of mind for teachers would afford them opportunities to notice these children, as many go unidentified, partly because they become adept at making themselves invisible. And partly because their teachers are so busy jumping through hoops to provide uniformity for whole class groups that they lose sight of the individuals who need them the most.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who found the courage to start this conversation. That it is continuing makes it harder to ignore the very real day-to-day challenges that come with fulfilling our duty of care. The importance of league tables and inspection reports is surely trumped by duty of care. This must therefore now be given top priority.